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cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France

nave at Amiens cathedral Image: Maurice Duvanel

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New translation, the Magna Carta

labyrinth or maze?
cathedral plans of labyrinths  by Jules Gailhabaud [1810-1888], translated
labyrinths at
     labyrinth design similarities and confusions
other information on labyrinths and mazes
pretty approximate dimensions
other names for labyrinths
background reading & bibliography
abelard's end notes


centre of Amiens labyrinthLong ago, on the river of time, I went to see the wonderful stained glass of Chartres for the first of many times. There, I became aware of a young companion dancing around in circles on the floor nearby. This was my first awareness of the fourteen-yard floor maze among the spilling riches of the great cathedral.

I took very little notice of it then, but recently I have done some investigations to fill the gap of this side-alley of cathedral art. The great, ancient labyrinths are almost all concentrated in northern France. There are many, more recent copies and attempts around the world. For example, a fairly modern attempt can be seen just inside the West Tower of Ely cathedral in England, dating from about 1870.

And now a thousand tourist traps attempt to draw in the pennies, they offer patterns for fractious young children to play upon, or maze booklets to colour in or to trace.

The Church of Rome has long fought superstition and magical thinking. I prefer to think these patterns were made for contemplation of life's journey, or quiet mediation, or even for dancing energetic and joyous children, while adding interest and designs to the cathedral. Often, as you will see, this is complemented by a bit of historical commemoration and a fascination with mathematical patterns.

However, many labyrinths in cathedrals and churches were stripped out during the times of Jansenists and other Puritan sects, as a means of stopping fun so the congregation would concentrate solely on religion.

I will not repeat all the dull speculation and magical cant, which you can find across a hundred web sites.

Labyrinth or maze?

"What is the difference, it may be asked, between a maze and a labyrinth? The answer is, little or none. Some writers seem to prefer to apply the word "maze" to hedge-mazes only, using the word "labyrinth" to denote the structures described by the writers of antiquity, or as a general term for any confusing arrangement of paths. Others, again, show a tendency to restrict the application of the term "maze" to cases in which the idea of a puzzle is involved. It would certainly seem somewhat inappropriate to talk of "the Cretan Maze" or "the Hampton Court Labyrinth," but, generally speaking, we may use the words interchangeably, regarding "maze" as merely the northern equivalent of the classic "labyrinth." Both words have come to signify a complex path of some kind, but when we press for a closer definition we encounter difficulties."
[From Introduction, Mazes and Labyrinths by W. H. Matthews, 1922]

A 'simply connected' maze has just one path that leads from its entrance at the exterior, that winds its way to eventually reach the centre, as can be seen at Amiens, Reims. It may include dead ends. A simply connected maze may include dead ends, though this is not so at Amiens or Reims. A maze or labyrinth with dead ends can be solved - finding one's way to the centre or out again - by keeping a hand touching one wall while going along the paths. Eventually, the goal will be reached. The labyrinth at Knossos in Crete was said to be of this type.

A 'multiply connected' maze has walls which are detached one from another, making separate closed circuits. The hedge maze at Hampton Court in England is a well-known example. Such a maze requires a more complex set of rules to reach the centre, or exit. These were determined by Pierre Charles Trémaux [active in the late 1800s].
  1. Mark on the right continuously any path you take. At a junction, continue to mark, taking any path you wish.
  2. If you encounter a previously marked (old) path or a dead end, turn around and continue marking back the way you came.
  3. If when walking on an old path (marked on the left), you arrive at a previously marked juncture, take and mark any new path if available, if not take an old path.
  4. Never take a path marked on both sides.

    Note that Trémaux only proposes making a single mark at the start or end of a path, but making a continuous line could be more obvious and reliable.

cathedral plans of labyrinths
by Jules Gailhabaud [1810-1888], published in 1858

[L'architecture du 5me au 17me siècle et les arts qui en dépendent is unpaginated, the following essay and plates appear about ¾ of the way through volume 2]

Not only is the original of the following in 19th-century French, but Jules Gailhabaud wrote most floridly and oratorically, in a cross between a James Joyceian stream of consciousness and Age of Enlightenment convoluted verbosity. Further, this was embellished by a good dose of the common assumption that the reader knows what is the apparent current topic, and to what vague "it's" and "they's" refer. All in all, verbal hand-waving!

In the English translation below, quite a lot of this vagueness and oratory has been removed. However, our translation has left a good proportion in order to convey not only Jules Gailhabaud's opinions, but also the type of education and thinking found in 19th-century French academia. At one point, there is a lengthy rhetorical question, whose translation has been rewritten in an end-note for those without the patience or attention span to follow the translation made.

Plans de labyrinthes

Figurés sur le sol des églises cathédrales et autres

Labyrinth Plans

Represented on the floors of cathedrals and other churches

À l'étude du pavage des églises, se rattache tout naturellement celle de son décor, et, par suite, une question interessante qu'enveloppe un certain mystère, mais dont l'origine ou la donnée générale semble remonter aux anciens.
Je veux parler d'un de ces usages que le christianisme trouva chez ses prédécesseurs, et dont il toléra la continuité a travers les ages, n'admettant toutefois, de l'idée première, que ce qui pouvait s'adapter au culte, et laissant la portee du symbole paien à l'antiquité, qui, d'abord, l'avait introduit comme ornement du sol.
The study of the paving of churches, which quite naturally connects with that of church decoration, poses an interesting question, surrounded in a certain mystery about the origin of labyrinths, that origin seeming to date from the ancients.
I want to talk of one of those uses that Christianity found amongst its forefathers, that was continued across the ages. Although it may be that, in antiquity, the heathen symbol may have been used for worship, labyrinths were first introduced as ornaments on the ground.
Pour traiter cette question aussi complétement que possible, il faudrait avoir produit certains exemples dont j'ai dû reporter la publication au supplément de ce livre.
Aussi, constraint par leur absence de remettre notre étude à une époque ultérieure, on comprend que nous n'approfondissions ici aucun des nombreuses points qui la composent, puisqu'on ne saurait les appuyer de preuves.
Dans cette conjoncture et en attendant qu'il nous soit donné de l'entreprendre, nous nous renfermerons dans des généralités.
Cependant, il convient de déclarer que nous n'envisagerons pas la question du même point de vue que nos devanciers, répétant, sous d'autres formes, des idées déjà emises.
Ceux-la n'ont point étudié ou approfondi la matière, qui n'ont su en tirer des aperçus nouveaux, et leurs élucubrations, malgré la peine qu'ils se donnent, ne sauraient faire avancer la science, qu'ils laissent, on doit le dire, toujours au même point.
To deal with this question [of the origin and purpose of labyrinths] as completely as possible, I should have produced some examples, but doing so would have meant postponing the publication of this supplement to this book.
Thus, constrained by their absence to deliver that study at a later time, it is understandable that here we do not study in depth any of its many points, because we do not have supporting evidence.
Against this backdrop and until we can undertake the further study, we shall restrict ourselves to generalities.
However, it is appropriate to state that we will not consider the question from the same point of view as our predecessors, thus repeating, in other forms, ideas already expressed.
That lot definitely have not studied or extended the matter, nor have they been able draw new insights; and with their rantings, despite the energy with which they're given, they could not advance science, which they leave, one must say, always at the same point as before.
La presente notice est donc plus spécialement consacrée à des considérations générales.
D'abord, j'appellerai l'attention sur les formes qui ont été données a ces représentations de prétendus plans de labyrinthes, et je dirai, ensuite, quelques mots du lieu où ils se trouvent.
Mais, à ces seuls points ne se borne pas la question; il en est d'autres non moins remplis d'intérêt, et ce sont malheureusement ceux que l'absence des planches nous force de taire.
Thus, this note is particularly devoted to general considerations.
First, I will call attention to the forms given to these representations of alleged plans of labyrinths, and then I will say a few words on the place where they are found.
But these points alone do not limit the question; there are others no less full of interest, but unfortunately lacking illustrations, we are forced to make no comment.
— Sous le rapport des formes, trois surtout semblent avoir été adoptées par les architectes pour la figuration, plus ou moins symbolique, de cette composition ; mais, on doit l'avouer, ces trois formes étaient presque les seules que l'on pût choisir et qui se prètassent aux combinaisons de ce genre : ce furent le rectangle, le polygone et le cercle.
Les plus anciennes représentations de plans de labyrinthes sont établies sur les figures de l'ellipse et de rectangle, et ce ne fut qu'un peu tard qu'apparut l'emploi du polygone.
Au point de vue graphique, cette dernière figure n'est autre qu'un carré dont l'abattement des angles a donné une forme intermédiaire entre celui-ci et le cercle auquel il mène tout naturellment.
— Regarding the forms of laybrinths, above all three shapes, more or less symbolic, appear to have been adopted by architects. However, one must admit that these three forms were almost the only ones that could be choosen and they give an air of seriousness to the combinations of this type: these were rectangle, polygon and circle.
The oldest representations of labyrinth plans were made in the figures of the ellipse and rectangle, and it was only a little later there appeared the use of the polygon.
In graphic terms, this last figure is none other than a square whose corners have been reduced to give an intermediate form between this and the circle to which it naturally leads.
— Ce premier point établi, restait à varier ou à savoir varier les combinaisons du parcours, et, là, était, pour des artistes, le véritable travail ;
mais, s'il faut déterminer ce point d'après les seuls plans qui nous restent, le résultat diminue quelque peu leur mérite ;
car, on voit les mêmes dispositions reproduites en divers lieux d'un même pays, mais avec cette modification cependant, soit pour tromper l'œil, soit pour obtenir des variétés, qu'elles sont tantôt en pierres de couleur foncée, en tantôt en pierres de sont clair; j'ajoute même que j'ai constaté des ressemblances identiques entre les compositions de la France et de l'Allemagne, et cette constatation nous prouve que les artistes, parfois, ne faisaient guères de grands frais d'imagination.
Sur ce point, doit-on admettre qu'il y eut seulement identité de pensée, ou bien convient-il mieux d'y voir franchement des copies résultant de modèles ou de patrons que toutes les campagnies de logeurs du bon Dieu connaissaient, et dont ils faisaient l'application, suivant les circonstances, dans telle ou telle église, et sans s'inquiéter si ce même motif avait ou non été déjà produit tel nombre de fois et dans des contrées diverses (1)?
C'est, là, une question que des recherches ultérieures viendront, peut-être, éclaircir; quant à nous, il nous suffit d'en avoir, le premier, indiqué la vraisemblance.
Mais, ici, je m'arrête pour réserver la possession de faits que l'on énoncera plus tard.
— This first point established, it remained to vary or differ the combinations of the path, and, there, for the artists, was the real work.
But, although this point has to be determined from the only remaining plans, the result somewhat diminishes their merit.
We see the same arrangements reproduced in various places within the same country/region.These variations, may have been made to fool the eye, or to obtain decorative variety, sometimes in dark, sometimes in clear stones. I add also that I found a identical resemblance between compositions from France and from Germany, and this observation proves to us that the artists, sometimes, hardly expended much imaginative effort.
On this point, should one admit this was the only indication of thought, or is it more appropriate, frankly, to see the copies as resulting from models, or from patterns that all the guilds of "landlords of God" knew, and of which they made use, depending on the circumstances, in this or that church, and without worrying whether this motif had or not already been used this number of times and in different countries. (1a)
It is, then, a question that future research will, perhaps, clarify; as for us, it suffices for us, firstly, to have indicated the likelihood.
But here I stop in order to reserve possession of facts that we will set out later.
Quelques autres questions, presque aussi intéressantes, viennent encore se rattacher à cette étude. Dans le nombre, je signale d'abord celle des particularités decoratives, telles qu'appendices, établis, comme au labyrinthe de Reims, en dehors de la composition ; puis, les dalles ornées du centre, ainsi qu'il y en eut à Amiens, etc. ; sujets divers que nous essaierons d'approfondir dans notre Supplement. Some other questions, almost as interesting, can be included as well in this study. In that number, I would first point out that of the decorative features, such as additions established outside of the composition as at the labyrinth of Reims, or tiles adorning the centre, as was put in Amiens, etc. ; various topics that we will try to expand in depth in our planned Supplement.
Enfin, il est une dernière remarque : c'est qu'en lisant le nom des lieux où se trouvent ces labyrinthes, on acquiert la preuve qu'ils étaient presque exclusivement établis dans les cathedrales, dans les grandes églises monastiques, etc., c'est-a-dire dans les constructions qui exigèrent, de la part des architectes, les plus grands efforts de talent, de génie et d'imagination ; les monuments religieux d'un ordre secondaire semblent en avoir été dépourvus.
Or, leur présence, dans ces seuls édifices, n'aurait-elle pas une signification quelconque, mais plus spécialement relative à l'art; et dans ce cas, ne pourrait-on en tirer, par exemple, cette conclusion :
que ces plans de labyrinthes n'avaient point, à l'origine, un but exclusivement religieux, mais qu'ils étaient plutôt, selon quelque vraisemblance appuyée sur des documents, qu'ils étaient plutôt la figuration d'un prétendu plan d'édifice' l'une des merveilles architecturales de l'ancien monde, à laquelle on fit une réputation qui s'est transmise a travers les siecles, et qui, arrivee à une certaine epoque, devint, dans l'esprit des hommes du moyen âge, comme la caractéristique ou le synonyme de toute grande enterprise, c'est à-dire une espèce de sceau que l'architecte plaçait pour consacrer son œuvre?
Il se peut aussi que l'Église, sans détourner l'intention, ait, plus tard, affecté ce plan à une autre destination; mais dans tous les cas, on ignorerait encore si cette pensée lui est venue directement, ou s'il faut l'attribuer a la ferveur de quelque pieux laïc, qui aurait voulu y voir une représentation du Chemin dit de Jerusalem.
Espérons que les recherches et les découvertes expliqueront tout cela, un jour!...
Finally, there is one last remark: it is only by reading the names of the places where these labyrinths are found, that one obtains evidence that they were almost exclusively established in cathedrals, in large monastic churches, etc., that is to say in constructions that required, on the part of architects, the greatest efforts of talent, engineering and imagination; religious monuments of a secondary nature seem to have been deprived of them.
[From here to the question mark is one rhetorical question, so put your concentration cap on! A simplication is provided here.] Yet their presence only in this type of buildings, would it not have some significance, even more especially concerning to art, and in this case, could we not draw, for example, this conclusion:
that these maze plans originally did not have an exclusively religious purpose, but rather they were, with some probability supported by documents, the representation of an alleged building plan, one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world, which gained such a reputation that it has been passed down through the centuries, and which became, in the minds of men of the Middle Ages, the characteristic of, or synonymous with, any large undertaking, that is to say a kind of seal the architect placed to sign his work?
It may also be that the Church, without deflecting that intention, had later assigned this plan to another destination; but in all cases, one does not know whether this thought came to the Church directly, or whether it should be attributed to the fervour of some pious layman, who wanted to see a representation of what is called the Way of Jerusalem.
Let's hope the research and discoveries explain it all one day! ...
Translation © 2016 abelard.org. All rights reserved.


  1. Cette notion viendrait donner, il se peut, un nouveau poids a la question, si obscure encore, du compagnonnage et de l'affiliation parmi les membres de ces compagnies de constructeurs.

end note

  1. This notion possibly gives a new weight to the question, if still obscure, of companionship and affiliation amongst the members of these construction guilds.

Illustrations of labyrinths included in cathedral plans of labyrinths by Jules Gailhabaud

Labyrinth plans at Saint-Omer, Bayeux and Reims
Labyrinth plans at Saint-Omer [top left], Bayeux [top right] and Reims [bottom]

Plans of laybyrinths at Sens, Chartres, Amiens and Saint-Quentin, with Amiens centre medallion
Plans of labyrinths at Sens [top left], Chartres [top right], Amiens [bottom left]
and Saint-Quentin [bottom right], with Amiens centre medallion [centre]

To reach the centre of both the maze at Amiens and that at Saint Quentin, the participant must follow the black line, rather than the white line as in other labyrinths such as those at Reims and Bayeux..



The labyrinth at the Basilica of Saint-Quentin is, essentially, the same as the labyrinth at Amiens.

Saint-Quentin labyrinth drawn by Jules Gailhabaud
Saint-Quentin labyrinth, drawn by Jules Gailhabaud [1810-1888],
in L'architecture du 5me au 17me siècle et les arts qui en dépendent, Tome 2, 1858
[Note: the drawing has an error, missing two bars. abelard.org has added these bars in red.]

The labyrinth at the Basilica of Saint Quentin
The labyrinth at the Basilica of Saint Quentin
image by permission of Aaron Hoang


“The labyrinths of Rheims, Chartres, and Amiens possessed in common a feature which has given rise to much discussion, namely, a figure or figures at the centre representing, it is believed, the architects of the edifices.

Original central medallion of Amiens Labyrinth
Original central medallion of Amiens Labyrinth

“That of Amiens is preserved in Amiens Museum and consists of an octagonal grey marble slab with a central cross, between the limbs of which are arranged figures representing Bishop Evrard and the three architects, Robert de Luzarches, Thomas de Cormont and his son Regnault, together with four angels. A long inscription accompanied it, relating to the foundation of the Cathedral.” [Quoted from sacred-texts.com]

Reconstuction of the centre of the original Amiens labyrinth
Reconstuction of the central medallion in the original Amiens labyrinth, now part of the current labyrinth

A : Bishop Evrard de Fouilloy +1222
B : Architect Maïtre Robert de Luzarches +1223
C : Architect Maïtre Thomas de Cormont +1240
D : Architect Maitre Renaut de Cormont

a : En l'an de grâce mil II.c
        Et XX fu l'œuvre de cheens
In the year of grace thousand two hundred
And twenty was this work
b : Premièrement en comenchie
       A dont yert de cheste Evesquie
First begun
The bishop of this diocese was
c : EVRART Evesques benis
       Et Roy de France Loys.
Evrard blessed Bishop and the
King of France was Louis [VIII]
d : Q. fu filz Phelippe Lesage
        Chil. Q. maistre yert de l'œuvre
Who was son of Philip the Wise
He who was master of the work
e : Maistre Robert estoit nomes
        Et de Lusarches surnomes.
Was named Master Robert and
surnamed de Luzarches.
f : Maistre Thomas fu après luy
        De Cormot. Et après sen filz
Master Thomas de Cormont was
after him. And afterwards his son
g : Maistre Regnault qui mestre
        Fist à chest point chicheste lectre
Master Renaut who had
placed at this spot
h : Que l'incarnaction valoit
       Xiij.c ans moins XII en faloit.
This inscription
in the year of incarnation 1288.

“Evrard de Fouilloy, 45th bishop of Amiens, placed the first stone of the cathedral of this town in 1220, under the pontificate of Honoré III. The walls had hardly left the ground when he died. Gaudefroy of Eu, his successor, raised the walls from the cobble stones to the vaults. Bishop Arnoult constructed the vaults, the galleries outside and a bell tower, all of which no longer exists. At last, this beautiful edifice was finished in 1288, with the exception of the towers, which for lack of funds, were not finished until the 14th century.

“Robert de Lusarches, the most famous architect of the time, drew the plan of the cathedral and started construction. After his death, Thomas de Cormont continued the works and Renault, his son, finished them.

“This is what the following inscription describes, an inscription on a copper strip at the centre of a maze of blue and white stones that used to be in the middle of the nave cobbles.”

[From Histoire de la ville d'Amiens: depuis les Gaulois jusqu'en 1830 by Hyacinthe Duseve, 1835, vol. 1 pp. 174-6]

The original labyrinth at Amiens was constructed in 1288, being 12.8 metres (42 feet) in diameter. It was destroyed in 1825. The drawing below appears to have been made from before that labyrinth's destruction … or maybe not.

Amiens labyrinth drawn by Jules Gailhabaud
Original (?) Amiens labyrinth, drawn by Jules Gailhabaud [1810-1888],
L'architecture du 5me au 17me siècle et les arts qui en dépendent, Volume 2, 1858
(unpaginated book, about 3/4 of the way through)

The current labyrinth, restored in 1894, is in the nave between other tiling. It is 12.1 metres in diameter. The design can be difficult to follow as chairs, billboards and other church clutter tend to be put there willy-nilly. The labyrinth is made from black marble of Basz and yellow-white tiles from Lunel. It is known at Amiens as the "House of Dedale".

Amiens labyrinth. Image: Maurice Duvanel
Amiens labyrinth. Image: Maurice Duvanel

labyrinth design similarities and confusions

If you take the drawing by Gailhabaud (a bit above), and reverse it black to white and white to black (similarly to making a photographic negative), and then flip that reversed image left to right, magically it becomes the pattern for the present Amiens labyrinth. Further, note that the actual Amiens labyrinth has a redundant and confusing black line surrounding it, as you can see just below.

the labyrinth at Amiens cathedral
Amiens labyrinth drawn by Jules Gailhabaud Amiens labyrinth drawn by Jules Gailhabaud Amiens labyrinth drawn by Jules Gailhabaud   Amiens labyrinth. Image: labyrinthproject.com
drawing by Gailhabaud, attributed by him to Amiens labyrinth made into a negative image flipped on the vertical axis   photo of the actual labyrinth at Amiens

la basilique Notre-Dame de Saint-Omer

The labyrinth in the form of a square, dating from 1716, is a half-size (quarter-area) copy of the one at the Abbaye Saint-Bertin de Saint-Omer, built by Canon Lambert in the 12th century. It replaces the labyrinth destroyed by the French Revolution.

Maze in Abbaye Saint-Berin de Saint-Ormer
Maze in Abbaye Saint-Bertin de Saint-Ormer

Unlike the symbolic labyrinths in the cathedrals at Amiens and at Chartres where the path is relatively simple, the Saint-Omer maze is complex. It is located at the crossing of the transepts and the nave, and is composed of 2.501 tiles, 1,340 white and 1,161 blacks..

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux

The labyrinth at Bayeux is not in the cathedral proper, but on the floor of the adjoining 12th century Chapter House. The maze is thought to be about 13th century, and is made of glazed, but worn, terracotta bricks. These can look rather attractive when the sun shines through the windows. The Chapter House is often locked, so you may have to beg the key, or go on a conducted tour.

Locally, it is thought that this labyrinth was for the use of the canons and other monks who were housed in the Chapter House, and so was not destroyed during the (perhaps surprisingly) puritan influences during the Enlightenment, Jansenism and revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Labyrinth in the chapter house of Bayeux cathedral
Labyrinth in the chapter house of Bayeux cathedral
[Amé, Émile, Les Carrelages Émaillés du Moyen Age, 1859, plate between pp. 50 and 51

Griffins, fleur-de-lys, and shields
The labyrinth in the chapter-house of Bayeux Cathedral measures 3.8 metres/12.5 feet across,
being composed of circles of tiles, some ornamented with griffins, fleur-de-lis, and shields that are separated by small, black tiles. The lighter tiles in the black, separating circles indicate where the adventurer may cross into the next stage of the labyrinth.


«Les Carrelages émaillés du Moyen-Age et de la Renaissance»
by Émile Amé [1821-19..], published in 1859

«Les Carrelages émaillés du Moyen-Age et de la Renaissance», pp. 51-52

"Glazed tiles from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance", pp. 51-52

La salle capitilulaire de Bayeux est une des plus belles qu‘un puisse voir; elle renferme en outre un magnifique carrelage en terre cuite vernissée du XlVe siècle. Au centre, ou y voit, en guise de rosace, un fort beau labyrinthe de 3 mètres 80 de diamètre. construit dans le même système que le pavé, avec des normaux émaillès; nous en donnons le dessin en regard. Rien que l'émail du pavé ait disparu presqu‘en entier sous le frottement des pieds, il est encore très facile de recoonnaître la décoration première.

La voie est composée de carreaux carrés à fonds bruns avec dessins jaunes. D‘autres briques, complètement noires et moins larges que les autres, forment les lignes de séparation, tandis que d‘autres briques, d'un jaune clair, indiquent les points de communication d‘une ligne concentrique à une autre; chacune de ces lignes est elle-même pavée dans tout son parcours en carreaux du même dessin.

Les documents relatifs à la cathédrale de Bayeux ne donnent aucun renseignement sur ce labyrinthe et sa destination. Une tradition tendrait néanmoins de faire considérer le parcours de cette figure comme un moyen de punition infligé aux chanoines. Nous pensons que cette tradition, qu‘aucune preuve ne vient corroborer, n‘est point la vraie, et qu'il ne faut voir dans l'usage de ce labyrinthe qu'une pratique de dévotion recommandée aux chanoines, et que le temps aura fait tomber en désuétude.

The chapter hall of Bayeux is one of the most beautiful that can be seen. It also contains a magnificent floor of glazed terracotta tiles from the 14th century. In the centre, can be seen, like a rosette, a beautiful labyrinth, 3 metres 80 in diameter, built using the same method as the pavement, with natural glazes; see the drawing opposite [just above on this page]. Just the glazing of the pavement has disappeared almost entirely under the friction of feet; it is still very easy to recognise the original decoration.

The route is composed of square tiles with a brown background and yellow designs. Other bricks, completely black and narrower than the others, form the dividing lines, while yet other bricks, of a light yellow, indicate the points of communication from one concentric line to another. Each of these lines is itself paved throughout its course in tiles of the same design.

The documents relating to the cathedral of Bayeux give no information on this labyrinth and its purpose. A tradition, however, would tend to consider the course of this figure as a means of punishment inflicted on the canons. We think this tradition, of which there's no proof to corroborate it, is definitely not true, and that we must see in the use of this labyrinth only a practice of devotion recommended to the canons, and that in time it [unclear whether "it" is the laybrinth or the custom] had fallen into disuse.

Translation © 2018 abelard.org. All rights reserved.

Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens

Sens cathedral

Formed of incised lines filled in with lead, it was destroyed in 1769, during "The Enlightenment". A similar specimen in Auxerre Cathedral was demolished about 1690.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims

The Labyrinth of Reims was built before the coronation of Philip the Fair [Philippe le Bel], celebrated 6th January 1286, the work being directed by Bernard de Soissons.

In the eighteenth century, children and ‘idlers’amused themselves by following the lines of the labyrinth, crisscrossing in every direction. The clergy, in particular a certain Canon Jacquemart, disturbed by this game, decided to remedy the situation, in 1778 or1779, by removing the labyrinth. An over-generous canon provided a thousand pounds and the destruction completed without it being thought to save the slightest piece of this precious monument.

Fortunately, at the end of the previous century, Jacques Cellier had made a detailed sketch of the labyrinth [placed in a manuscript collection of the National Library, it was also reproduced in several archaeology works] but without details of the legends accompanying the effigies. However, there were two records made of those.

Pierre Cocquault, canon of Reims who died in 1645, recorded the legends, in his manuscript memoirs [a copy was put in the Reims town library]. The other recording of the legends was taken at the time of the destruction, being published in a local daily paper, Affiches rémoises dated 28 June 1779. Although the legends to the labyrinths were deteriorating even in Cocquault’s time, these two records together provide enough information to know who the effigies represent.

Sketch of Reims cathedral labyrinth by Jacques Cellier, 17c

In the centre is Archbishop Aubry de Humbert who laid the first stone of the cathedral in 1211. The four smaller figures are the first four masters of works [maître d’oeuvre]. Entering from the main west door:

  • At bottom right: Bernard of Soissons, maître d’oeuvre for 35 years, drawing a circle with a compass, because he ‘opened the O’ - the west rose window.
  • At bottom left: Gauche [Lefties] of Reims, master during eight years, who ‘opened’ the arches and doors. He held a pair of dividers.
  • At top right: Jean d’Orbits who worked on the nave and apse, which was finished in 1241. He held a compass, one of whose points rests on a design.
  • At top left: Jean Le Loup, master during sixteen years, who also worked on the doors. He held a very large square.

It is thought that the labyrinth was built as the collective signature of the cathedral's master builders, designed with reference to that of the Cathedral of Amiens.

The labyrinth was certainly completed before the start of the 14th century, as it does not include another of the early maître d’oeuvre, Robert de Coccyx, who died in 1311.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres

The labyrinth at Chartres - stylysied

right: labyrinth at Chartres, c. 1750
J.B. Rigaud

Labyrinth at Chartres, late 17th century

The floor labyrinth was laid in 1205, and was used by the monks for walking contemplation. It is still used by pilgrims. There is only one path 964 feet long. At the centre of the labyrinth there used to be a metal plate showing figures of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur, the characters in the classical myth of the Minos labyrinth.

The circumference of the labyrinth is 40 metres (131 feet).

other information on labyrinths and mazes

pretty approximate dimensions

Bayeux: 3.78 m diameter
Sens: 9.14 m diameter
Reims: 10.36 m width
Saint-Quentin: 10.5 m width
Saint-Omer: estimated 10.85 m
Amiens: 11,6 m diameter, 234 m long
Chartres : 12,89 m diameter, 261,55m long

other names for labyrinths

In times past, what is generally called a labyrinth was given other names. Here are some:

'Dedale', referring to the architect of the maze of Knossos, Dædalus.

'Meandre' (meander).

'Chemin de Jerusalem' or "the road to Jerusalem", a name derived from the understanding that cathedral labyrinths were sometimes used as a kind of short pilgrimage by those unable or unwilling to do a full pilgrimage. Apparently, indulgences could be earned that were equivalent to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Saint Jacques de Compostela.
Relating to this, the labyrinth's centre was called 'ciel' (heaven) or "Jérusalem".

'La Lieue' , or the League. This was not because a labyrinth, such as that at Chartres, was a distance of a league or about 4 kilometres, but because it was a long way. It is also said that the time to travel a major labyrinth while kneeling took as much time as walking a league!
Possibly, la lieue had some etymological connection with an old Gaulish measurement leuca, leuga or leuva, that was 1500 paces long.

'Via Dolorosa', painful way, evoking the path that Jesus took from the court of Pontius Pilate to reach Golgotha.

background reading and bibliography

The Labyrinthine Path of Pilgrimage by Tessa Morrison.
This is not a bad essay that you might like to read [7-page .pdf]

L'architecture du 5me au 17me siècle et les arts qui en dépendent, Volume 2 by Jules Gailhabaud, 1858

Histoire de la ville d'Amiens: depuis les Gaulois jusqu'en 1830 by Hyacinthe Duseve, 1835

Récreations Mathematiques by Edouard Lucas, 1822

Dictionnaire françois de la langue oratoire et poétique by Joseph Planche, Librarie de Gide, Paris, 1822

Mazes and Labyrinths: A General Account of Their History and Development
by W. H. Matthews

La cathedrale d'Evreux


Project Guttenberg scanned copy

Les Carrelages émaillés du Moyen-Age et de la Renaissance
by Emile Amé
Les Carrelages émaillés du Moyen-Age et de la Renaissance A. Morel et Cie, Editeurs, Paris

National Library of France scanned copy

Google books scanned copy

abelard's end notes

  1. Pierre Trémaux's solution can be viewed from page 47 of this .pdf of Edouard Lucas' Récreations Mathematiques, 1882.

  2. Trémaux's instructions were:
    1. Mark on the right the start of any path you take. At a junction, mark, and take any path you wish.
    2. If you encounter a previously marked (old) path or a dead end, turn around and go back the way you came.
    3. If when walking on an old path (marked on the left), you arrive at a previously marked juncture, take and mark any new path if available, if not take an old path.
    4. Never take a path marked on both sides.

  3. élucubrations : rantings, fantasies, imaginings, pipe dreams, figments,

  4. prétassant, from prétasser, se : v. affecter un air de gravité , de dîguité , de morgue
                        affect an air of seriousness, of dignity, of haughtiness or arrogance
    From Dictionnaire françois de la langue oratoire et poétique by Joseph Planche, Librarie de Gide, Paris, 1822

  5. It would appear that the presence of labyrinths solely in cathedrals is for more reasons than artistic. Although in antiquity, labyrinths may have been drawn as plans of of a building rather than just having religious significance; by the Middle Ages, I suggest that labyrinth plans were regarded as a finishing motif of the architect concerned.

  6. On the inscription, 1288 is written “Xiij.c ans moins XII”, or “13 hundred years less 12”.

    Note that on the copper plaque from the cathedral, the Roman numerals are written in the normal way as XIII. The transcription in John Ruskin’s book writes Roman numerals as was commonly done since medieval times, with the final ‘i’ of a number group being written as a ‘j’as a terminator. On medical prescriptions, the terminating ‘j’ helps avoid prescribing errors.

    Thus, the first ten Roman numerals would be written j, ij, iij, iv, v, vj, vij, viij, ix, x.

  7. griffin
    The griffin (other spellings include griffon, gryphon) is a legendary creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion,
    the head and wings of an eagle, and the talons of an eagle as its front feet.

marker cathedrals – introduction: reading stained glass
marker gothic cathedral and church construction
marker cathedrals, an illustrated glossary
marker Chartres - wonder of the world
marker Notre Dame de Paris, Paris
marker lantern towers of Normandy and elsewhere
marker history of ugly stained glass: Auch, Bazas, Dreux
marker Auch cathedral choir and stalls
marker Rouen and Monet
marker at France pages Dax and church iconography marker photographs, Dax
marker Bazas - iconography and architectural styles
marker Poitiers, neglected masterpiece marker photographs, Poitiers / photos 2
marker Angers, heart of the Angevin Empire marker photographs, Angers
marker Laon, the midst of the gothic transition, with added oxen marker photographs, Laon
marker Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon
marker Notre Dame of Lausanne
marker Senlis - how a typical cathedral changes through the ages
marker Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges - the cathedral of the Pyrenees
marker Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours

marker Le Mans and Bourges cathedrals - medieval space technology
marker Lausanne rose window - photo-analysis
marker cathedrals in Lorraine - the Three Bishoprics
marker cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais
marker Clermont-Ferrand and Agde - from volcanoes to cathedrals

marker Germans in France - Arras cathedral
marker Germans in France - Reims cathedral
marker Germans in France - St. Quentin cathedral
marker Germans in France - Noyon cathedral
marker Germans in France - Cambrai cathedral
marker Germans in France - Soissons cathedral

marker cathedral plans, and facts
marker stone in church and cathedral construction
marker using metal in gothic cathedral construction
marker cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
marker cathedrals and cloisters of Franceby Elise Whitlock Rose
marker the perpendicular or English style of cathedral
marker Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France

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